Your environment, your microbiome: How where you live becomes who you are

Jill Clark

We’ve talked a lot already about how billions of bacteria live in and on your body creating what we call your microbiome. Now, we’re interested in how your microbiome is influenced by your physical environment.

Where you live can quite literally form who you are when it comes to the microscopic bugs in and on your body. Wait—what?!

Urban Versus Rural Microbiomes

What does this mean, though? Studies show that Western diets and lifestyles are linked to both a decrease in microbial diversity and an increase in chronic inflammatory diseases. Interestingly, rural environments—even in the Western world—are home to a rich and diverse microbial presence. Individuals who have the pleasure of growing up in rural environments appear to be somewhat protected from the chronic inflammation that plagues urban dwellers.

We want to know: Why are they linked?

The Diversity Anomaly

When we say that rural environments have a more diverse microbiome, we also should say that urban environments lack the bacteria typically found in natural settings. Instead, urban environments are teeming with bacteria typically found on human skin or in our mouths. Office spaces, for example, house quite a large number of bacteria, but the diversity is lacking compared to outdoor environments.

And beyond that, the microbial makeup differs between cities. That’s right—your city’s microbiome is unique. Just as the makeup of two people is different, the bacteria of two settings also differs.

Your home and your work are comprised of different bacteria—these indoor spaces are called built environments (BEs).They are influenced by the bacteria of other human interaction, the materials used to build the environment, the season, or the location in a room. The bacteria that lives in one corner of the room could be different from another. In the case of rural versus urban areas, this makeup is also influenced by the presence or lack of nature.

It’s Okay to get a Little Dirty!

It’s suggested that early exposure is the key to a diverse gut microbiome. The difference in urban and rural lifestyles is that lack of early exposure to a microbial-rich environment. Along the same note, science is starting to show that our immune system development is directly influenced by our microbiome development. This means that, from early exposure to a vast variety of bacteria, we grow older with a likelier chance of having a robust immune system.

Although the details are yet to be discovered, we do see our environment plays a role. Studies also indicate that mothers transmit their own bacteria—good and bad—to their children. What could this mean for urban mothers to children who grow up solely in urban environments?

Your City and Your Gut Health

Okay, so now we know that our environments are linked to our microbiomes, and potentially subsequently our health—like our guts and immune systems. We aren’t exactly sure of the severity of this link, but we see it’s there.

Moving forward, scientists are eager to see if studying the microbial makeup of a city will help them determine the likelihood of harbored pathogens. Through the study of microbes and microbiomes, they’re seeing connections allowing them to have another level of understanding of new and important factors influencing our health in the modern world.  We’re eager to know the results!

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